I wandered the aisles of the Ace Hardware store in downtown Donaldsonville, La. (population 7,473), trying vainly to discern anything that suggested the building’s unique provenance. But I could detect nothing among the paints and nails and garden supplies that overflowed on the shelves and walls to reflect that this building had been Congregation Bikur Cholim.
Bikur Cholim had been the only Jewish place of worship on the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. It is now, quite ironically, recognized as the second-oldest extant synagogue building in Louisiana, despite its current incarnation and the fact that Donaldsonville has zero remaining Jews.
From the vantage point across Railroad Avenue, one can see a tall wooden building rising elegantly behind the hardware store’s low, 1950s commercial façade. The old façade is adorned with Victorian filigree, and handsome lintels at the corners. But most people wouldn’t notice, even those who travel to Donaldsonville following an itinerary of Southern Jewish history along the Mississippi River corridor, organized by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Visitors are directed to the Bikur Cholim Cemetery, which dates back to 1859, and the (now closed) Italianate B. Lemann and Son department store, completed in 1877. Ace Hardware receives merely a footnote.
The Bikur Cholim congregation was organized in 1869; the synagogue was built in 1872. The Donaldsonville Chief, a weekly that is still in operation, reported on the “commodious, tall structure… with a double archway over the entry. There is a rosette window but no other decoration, and a small balcony on the second floor.” The Silver Coronet Band “filled the pauses in the dedication ceremony with solemn music.”
At that time, Donaldsonville had boasted a vibrant Jewish community with 70 member families, including mayors, businessmen and farm owners, small and large. As reported in The Chief, they gathered for Friday night and Saturday morning services; for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other life-cycle events, and for business meetings, benefits and more. In 1900, the newspaper stated, “Our Jewish residents are reckoned among the best and most liberal minded citizens and are associated with every progressive move.”
As is often the case in many small Southern towns, however, Donaldsonville’s Jewish community began to disappear. By the 1930s, intermarriage with local Catholics had greatly diminished synagogue membership; by the late 1940s, the synagogue was closed. In 1955, the building was deconsecrated and was sold to a Western Auto dealership, with proceeds from the sale dedicated to a perpetual care fund for the cemetery.
The last two Jewish citizens in Donaldsonville died in 1994 and 2004, respectively. I hadn’t known either one.
I’ve been writing books and articles about the River Road Corridor, the area on the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, for 20 years, and was haunted by the story of Donaldsonville’s Jews. Though the history of the synagogue has been fairly well documented, the interior space of Bikur Cholim — where the Reform congregation had gathered to express its identity and celebrate Judaism — seemed lost. That is what I was seeking as I wandered the aisles of Ace Hardware. I even asked a clerk for permission to open the door beneath an exit sign. But I saw no remnant of the synagogue’s interior, only a small back foyer from which a pair of large double doors painted brick-red opened to the outside. A cluttered storeroom was to the right, a staircase on the left. As I departed, disappointed, the clerk smiled understandingly; I wasn’t the first person who’d come looking for traces of the old synagogue.
After my visit to Ace Hardware, I began to do research, searching for anyone with firsthand knowledge of the old synagogue, or at least a photograph of the synagogue’s interior, but it was a months-long, futile exercise. Only as I was about to end it did I find Mark Gautreau and Carolyn Masur.
Gautreau has owned the building since 1977, when he bought it from Western Auto and opened Ace Hardware. He is Catholic and had no relationship with Donaldsonville’s Jewish community, although he did know that his store building had been a synagogue. He is also a gifted avocational carpenter and woodworker with an excellent eye for wood and an uncanny ability to read construction clues. These served him well when, in 1985, he decided to finish out the cavernous attic above his store for his family’s living quarters. They served me well, too.
His renovation revealed the bones of a typical, late-19th-century, south Louisiana building: a frame structure raised on low piers. He admired its “fine craftsmanship… every finger joint precise and braced,” and denigrated Western Auto’s renovation. “They modified the building on the cheap,” he noted. But for me it proved serendipitous, because their inferior construction had left vital clues.
He pointed out the decorative detail on the original walls — wooden baseboard, ridged panels and the tall molding, which rose to a height of more than six feet.
From the look of them, Gautreau suggested, Western Auto had probably moved those large doors with iron hardware in the back foyer from the synagogue entrance under the double archway. And the back staircase had probably originally been near the entry, leading to the synagogue’s small balcony. When the store ceiling had been constructed, Western Auto had unceremoniously ripped off the stairs and moved them, to access the cavernous attic warehouse that was created. As we climbed the stairway, I could feel in its treads that slightly creaky tightness so common in 19th-century Louisiana wood.
The stairs led to the Gautreaus’ great room, a large, inviting space under a 14-foot, barrel-vaulted old pine ceiling painted white. When I saw it, my heart pounded: Bikur Cholim’s original ceiling.
The woodman’s special pride was reserved for his floors, which he’d found poorly nailed down in Western Auto’s attic. It had been the original flooring of the synagogue, which he sanded and refinished, revealing the warm, rich grain of old heart pine. The project had been a labor of love, even if he often referred to the original building as “the church.”
Carolyn Masur now lives in Lafayette, La., but she heard I was looking for anyone who had attended services at Bikur Cholim. She grew up in Klotzville, just down Bayou Lafourche, in Donaldsonville. Now in her 80s, she warned that her memories weren’t perfect. When she attended services as a young teenager, synagogue membership was already in great decline.
She remembered a small entry foyer that led to a carpeted center aisle dividing the ranks of eight or 10 rows of pews on each side. “Everyone brought their own prayer books,” she said. She remembered scuffing her feet against the board floors as she sat, probably squirming, in the pew.
The sanctuary space seemed very tall; the walls and ceiling were white, and lights hung on long chains. The four large windows along each side were too high for a girl to see much outside. The raised and carpeted bimah was furnished simply, with a lectern for the rabbi and two high-backed chairs. The Ark on the back wall was an unadorned cabinet with wooden doors holding a single Torah with a blue cover. No choir accompanied the services.
These final years for Bikur Cholim were far different from the services with music, choir and energy described by The Chief. And it had been her father, Masur told me, who was in charge of the building’s sale.
I now believe that, with Gautreau’s sleuthing and Masur’s remembrances, I have gained some sense of the simple, elegant space that was Bikur Cholim. I can envision that place where men named Bloch, Pforzheimer, Kaufmann, Kessler, Klotz and Lemann brought their families to synagogue in a town where the Jewish merchants closed their stores during Saturday morning services.
My interpretation of Bikur Cholim can never stand as historic documentation, but it’s the best I can muster for now to honor that lost Jewish community of Donaldsonville. So I keep hoping that some vintage, dog-eared and yellowed photographs of a wedding or a bar mitzvah at Bikur Cholim will turn up — either to verify what I’ve pieced together or to correct me with blessed certainty.
Mary Ann Sternberg, a freelance writer and the author of “River Road Rambler” and Along the River Road,” Third Edition (LSU Press 2013), lives in Baton Rouge.